Educating Kids for Jobs for the 21st Century

by Susan Ohanian


"Standardistos"--business leaders calling for "high standards" for students--blather about schools preparing kids for jobs for the 21st century at the same time they are outsourcing jobs overseas faster than we can count. Writing in Fortune in June 2003, Nelson D. Schwartz noted, "Of the nine million Americans out of a job, 17.4% are managers or specialty workers. . . ." They should ask the Business Roundtable, Education Trust, Progressive Policy Institute and all the other outfits pushing algebra as the gateway to success why their high skill diplomas haven’t kept them safe.

On Labor Day 2003, NPR’s The Connection aired a program titled "The Democratization of Unemployment," documenting that the white collar worker, the person with a college degree, is "every bit as vulnerable as others with less education." Barry Bluestone, Professor of Political Economy at Northeastern University and Director of the Center for Urban and Regional Policy explained that during the deep recession of the 1980s, high school drop outs were four times as likely to be unemployed as college graduates. But these days, you have higher probability of facing unemployment if you have some college than if you have none—or are a college graduate. Even with a bachelor’s degree or more, Bluestone emphasized, you are as likely to face unemployment as a high school graduate. In A Working Stiff’s Manifesto: A Memoir of Thirty Jobs I Quit, Nine That Fired Me, and Three I Can't Remember (Soho Press 2002), Iain Levison adds a footnote to the conventional wisdom that you are unemployable without a college degree: "That you are often unemployable with one is something a lot of people spend a lot of money to discover."

High skill jobs in financial services and information technology, those jobs so venerated such a short time ago, have been hit hard. In information technology we’ve lost 11% of the jobs that existed in February 2001. Outfits like IBM call it outsourcing. A more honest name would be pad-the-company-profits. They increase their profits by shipping the jobs to India or the Philippines. If we had labor sections in our newspapers, the way we have business sections, maybe such practices would be tagged as un-American. And when corporate moguls shop the world for cheap labor: we get an economy of meanness. As Jeff Gates (no relation to Bill) points out in Democracy at Risk: Rescuing Main Street from Wall Street, in 1998, the top-earning 1% of Americans had as much income as the lowest-earning 100 million Americans. This is way beyond that adage "the rich get richer."

Consider this: Every month of George Bush II’s tenure, 80,000 jobs have disappeared. Every month. Government jobs, once considered safe, are disappearing too. More than 115,000 government employees have lost their jobs since February 2003.

Jobs for the Twenty-first Century

The Standardisto-screaming headlines about the high skills needed for jobs for the 21st century are a scam. In reality, jobs of the 21st century are not different from those of the 20th century. All one has to do is check the projections of U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2010:

22% of jobs will require four years of college

9% of jobs will rquire an AA degree—some technical training.

That leaves a whole lot of jobs for high school graduates. The crime is, not that there are no jobs, but that these jobs don’t come with a living wage.

And then there’s the matter of job requirement inflation. Speaking at Middlebury College in the spring of 2003, Richard Rothstein recounted renting a car at Enterprise Car Rental. Talking to the clerk who checks cars in and out, he learned that her position requires college—for no good reason—other than with a tight job market, they can. Of course English majors have always had this problem. When I got out of college with a Masters Degree in medieval literature, I landed a job at a magazine with a Madison Avenue address because I could type 85 words a minute. My boss, an egotistical luminary, liked bragging that his gofer had a master’s degree from the University of California. Just because I took the job didn’t make my degree necessary to do the job, any more than those pizza delivery persons with college degrees are using their education. Sometimes you take a job because you need a job.

1995 jobs required 4 years more education than 1955 jobs. The skill level of jobs wasn’t increased—just the requirements. We confuse technology with skill. Technology deskills jobs as well as upgrades. Take the clerk who passes your grocery items over the scanner so they can tote up automatically in the cash register. I remember my father telling me of his early days clerking at Piggy Wiggly. Every week he had to walk through the store, memorizing price changes. He took great pride in knowing all the new prices as he rang up purchases. Today, his job would be considered ‘unskilled’ but the clerk using scanner would be classified as ‘skilled.’

The 1990 Report from the Commission on the Future of the American Workforce titled its report: America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages! Robert Kuttner, co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect, says a better title would have been: America’s Choice: High Skills and Low Wages! In his book Everything for Sale: The Virtues and Limits of Markets (Knopf 1998), Kuttner points out, "The skills gap is large a mirage…millions of people who are literate and numerate and offer good work habits still receive dismal wages…except at the very top, workers are being compensated less generously for the skills they have." Iain Levison observes, "If you ask the rich why you’re not capable of supporting yourself, they’ll tell you it is your fault. The ones who make it to the lifeboats always think the ones in the water are to blame."

Anyone who thinks the working poor are to blame for their condition should read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. It will change your life.


Job Distribution

Rothstein observed that we distribute jobs by social class. If we ‘qualify’ all students with a college degree, then 100% of students will be competing for the 22% of jobs requiring college degrees. The answer here is not to push more kids in to college but pay better salaries to those jobs not requiring college. Instead, we get the phenomenon of parents in affluent districts raising thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of dollars to fund everything from extra teacher salaries to field trips—to make sure the differential between their kids’ school and those other schools is maintained.

If the level of all education is going up, then those on the upper end have to make sure theirs stays better. Example: The Parent Teacher Association at the 240-student McGilvra Elementary in North Seattle raises $200,000 annually to pay for three full-time teachers and a part-time computer science teacher, and parents have provided items such as a new refrigerator for the staff lounge and 55 new iMac computers, donated by a parent who is a high-tech executive. Talking to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the PTA president said, "Our parents take great responsibility for the education of their kids." Well lah-de-dah.

The newspaper pointed out that Beacon Hill Elementary, located "in a more modest neighborhood" a few miles away managed to raise $22,000 by selling cookie dough and organizing a read-a-thon. This fall they are asking each family to pay for a ream of paper to help compensate for budget cuts.

I say it’s time for the parents at McGilvra Elementary to stop bragging about all the good things they do for their kids’ education. It’s time for the parents at McGilvra Elementary to take great responsibility for the education of all kids. It’s past time for everyone in the country to do this.